Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson and the Old School Blues

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This two-CD set is a most unusual approach to packaging Robert Johnson's legacy that might not be to the liking of some hardcore purists and collectors, but has some points in its favor. For it combines one CD of actual Johnson recordings with a second CD of songs and artists that could have influenced, or most certainly did influence, the great country bluesman, sometimes quite directly. Disc one is all Johnson, and it does contain one version apiece of all 29 songs he recorded, though it's missing 12 different takes that appear on The Complete Recordings. To make matters a little more confusing, these missing versions are not always the ones identified as alternate takes on The Complete Recordings -- sometimes the version here is the one The Complete Recordings has identified as the alternate, sometimes it's the one that hasn't been identified as an alternate. All that taken in, it still of course offers excellent value with its 76 minutes of music, and any listener will still get a good idea of the breadth of Johnson's work (and of course, The Complete Recordings is available if anyone wants to track down every last item).

Of more interest to those already aware of Johnson's music, perhaps, is disc two, with 25 tracks, almost every single one of them by a major blues musician of his generation. Bukka White, Bessie Smith, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Son House, Memphis Minnie, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy are all here, for starters, as well as some performers with gospel (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Golden Gate Quartet) and country (DeFord Bailey) leanings. While the actual influence each performer might have exerted must remain to some degree speculative given the general uncertainty about many details of Johnson's life and character, in some cases these songs influenced him quite directly -- he cut his own version of Son House's "Preaching the Blues," took a title from Roosevelt Sykes' "32-20 Blues," and used "Old Original Kokomo Blues" (here done by Kokomo Arnold) as a basis for "Sweet Home Chicago." Whether or not Johnson heard any of these specific recordings, and regardless of how much he may or may not have been influenced by these figures, it's a very good disc of early blues that gives novices some insight into the musical context in which he flowered. It's not how most Blues 101 courses would advise learning about Johnson and early blues music in general, but it just might to at least some degree educate those not inclined to dive whole-hog into blues history, in a more entertaining manner than most academic books and lectures could offer. For the relatively many listeners who already have some or all of Johnson's recordings, however, making disc two a stand-alone early blues compilation might have been more useful than pairing it with Johnson tracks they may well already own.

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